Review: Good At Falling by The Japanese House

Since she first broke onto the music scene four years ago, Amber Bain, i.e. The Japanese House, has been releasing music that confounds as much as it intrigues. When she released her first EP, Pools to Bathe In, in 2015, she opted for an anonymous route, choosing to keep her identity a mystery. There was speculation when the EP first came out that it was a secret side project of The 1975 considering it was released on their label Dirty Hit, their drummer George Daniels had a hand in the production, and Bain’s vocals are heavily edited and often androgynous. The EP featured lush and experimental production, it’s folk and pop elements sometimes sounding nearly drowned by a wash of synthesizers and effects.

It didn’t take long for Bain to abandon her anonymity, citing the fact that it had become nearly a larger point of discussion than the music itself, and as she’s continued to release music over the last four years her music has become slowly less experimental with each release. There are some exceptions to this (see the sprawling, nearly ten minute track “Count to Nine” off of 2017’s Saw You in a Dream), but there’s no denying that the more recent output of The Japanese House has favored a more straightforward approach to indie pop and folktronica, with the latest record Good at Falling going the furthest in this direction of any of her releases to date.

I was first introduced to The Japanese House in September of 2018 when “Lilo”, the first single off of Good at Falling, was released. I had just recently begun listening to The 1975 (late to the party, I know), and as I was listening to The 1975 radio on Spotify when “Lilo” came on. I was immediately engaged by the boldness of the nearly forty second ambient intro, not something I was accustomed to hearing in modern pop music. It was glitchy and odd, and felt like an immediate breath of fresh air. Just as I was beginning to wonder how long it might go on for, the song began, a simple but punchy drum beat sitting beneath several layers of synth pads and droning bass, complex and sparse in the same breath, robust yet delicate. What really grabbed my attention, though, were the vocals. They were densely layered, but soft, dancing over the music with such gentle and graceful ease that I could hardly keep up as they moved about, jumping up and down in ways that would take me several listens to really get a grasp on. Therein lies Bain’s greatest strength as a songwriter and vocalist, her ability to write songs and melodies that keep you on your toes, forcing you to engage with the music if you hope to stay in, confusing and delighting at the same time.

I was immediately thirsty for more music by The Japanese House, diving headfirst into the very limited catalogue. For the next couple of months nearly all I listened to were those first four EP’s, memorizing every minute detail. Naturally, I was ecstatic when Bain released the follow up to “Lilo” in mid November, “Follow My Girl”, but I was sadly disappointed. It felt to me as though “Follow My Girl” was trying to hit some of the same basic notes that “Lilo” had, a vocal melody that moved about in unexpected ways, a slightly glitchy but simple beat, but where all these elements on “Lilo” had felt purposeful and calculated, on “Follow My Girl”, they just sounded a bit arbitrary and messy. As a result, I stopped paying so much attention, and the next two singles for Good at Falling, “Maybe You’re the Reason” and “We Talk all the Time”, escaped my notice. I’ll admit I was a bit apprehensive when the record was finally released at the beginning of March, but based on the good will Bain had earned with “Lilo” and her first four EP’s, I gave it a shot.

The record opens with the somewhat dreary “went to meet her (intro)”, an underwhelming album opener. Though I was intrigued by the hard hitting drums and auto-tuned vocals, something I wasn’t really used to hearing from The Japanese House, it felt more like a decent first draft of a track than a fully fleshed out song, and didn’t do much to get me excited for the record ahead. Sadly, it isn’t the only track on the album that left me feeling this way. The standout tracks on this album are largely just the singles, with many of the deeper cuts feeling half baked and subdued to the point of being a bit boring. There are some exceptions, like “You Seemed So Happy,” an uncharacteristically fun and bouncy song, its twangy guitars recalling some of the more prominent folk elements of Bain’s earlier work, and “Wild”, a mesmerizing track that builds slowly to a densely layered mix of percussion, bright keys, and ethereal pads. I will admit that in the context of the album, “Follow My Girl” has grown on me considerably, but I attribute that mostly to it being one of the few tracks on the record that feels like it has some life and energy to it. Good at Falling ends with an extremely stripped back and somber rendition of the song “Saw You in a Dream” off of the 2017 EP of the same name, and while it was interesting to hear Bain’s voice and songwriting so stripped of effects and production, it felt like an odd choice to close the album with.

Overall, Good at Falling isn’t a bad record, especially when you consider the fact that it’s the debut album from a relatively new artist, but where the last four EP’s consistently sounded fresh and interesting even at their lowest points, Good at Falling just sounds safe, like Bain was unwilling to take too many chances with her first official record. As a result, the album is a bit forgettable, with only the few and far between highlights really sticking in my head and encouraging me to come back for repeat listens. Regardless, I’ll undoubtedly still check out anything Bain comes out with in the future, and I hope that she’ll feel a bit more comfortable experimenting and going out of her comfort zone on future releases, because the potential is there in droves.

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